Can proteins be heart-healthy? Experts say yes. But when it comes to choosing the best protein sources for your diet, it pays to be discriminating. It’s also important to eat the proper amount of different types of protein. For example, the American Heart Association (AHA) reports that many Americans get more protein than they need from meats high in saturated fats.
Eating too much saturated fat can elevate low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can lead to heart disease. Processed meats have been most strongly linked to cardiovascular disease, in part due to their high content of added sodium, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Picking Your Proteins
A number of studies suggest that replacing high-fat meats with more heart-healthy proteins like fish, beans, poultry, nuts, and low-fat dairy might help prevent heart disease. The nutrients in these forms of protein can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and help you maintain a healthy weight. By choosing these proteins over high-fat meat options, you can reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke, the Cleveland Clinic reports.
A recent study in the journal Circulation found that high red meat intake increases your risk for coronary heart disease. You can reduce that risk by shifting to alternative protein sources. Eating more fish and nuts was associated with significantly lower risk. One serving per day of nuts was associated with a 30 percent lower risk of heart disease than one serving per day of red meat. One daily serving of fish had a 24 percent lower risk. Poultry and low-fat dairy also were associated with lower risk, at 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
But what specific types of these heart-healthy proteins should you eat and how much do you need?
The Cleveland Clinic identifies fish among its top protein picks to help prevent cardiovascular disease. Adults are recommended to eat one (three- to six-ounce) fillet or one (three-ounce) can of fish each week. The following are considered “power foods” to decrease your risk of heart disease.
In addition to the lean protein that you get from tuna that’s wild, fresh, or canned in water, you’ll also receive the benefit of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the risk of several cardiovascular problems. Tuna also contains vitamins B12 and D, niacin, and selenium. Canned or pouched albacore tuna is slightly higher in mercury, so try “chunk light” tuna instead.
Whether the salmon you eat is wild, fresh, or canned pink, it’s a smart choice for your heart. Like tuna, salmon contains omega-3s, as well as phosphorous, potassium, selenium, and vitamins B6, B12, and D. For healthy preparation, the Cleveland Clinic recommends broiling salmon for 10 minutes for each inch of thickness.
The Harvard School of Public Health notes that while a six-ounce broiled porterhouse steak provides 40 grams of complete protein, it also delivers about 38 grams of fat—14 of them saturated. The same amount of salmon provides 34 grams of protein and only 18 grams of fat—only four of which are saturated.
Nuts and Legumes
According to some studies, nuts are one of the healthiest protein choices you can make for your heart. Options include walnuts, cashews, pecans, and peanuts.
Legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils are another excellent option. They contain no cholesterol and significantly less fat than meat. Harvard School of Public Health notes that a cup of cooked lentils delivers 18 grams of protein—and less than one gram of fat.
In addition to nuts and beans, the Cleveland Clinic highlights natural peanut butter as a heart-healthy choice. They recommend eating between two to four tablespoons of natural peanut butter per week.
The Mayo Clinic lists poultry, such as chicken or turkey, as a top low-fat protein source. Research has shown that poultry is associated with an almost 20 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease than red meat.
Take care to choose options that are truly lower fat. For example, choose skinless chicken breasts over fried chicken patties. Trim away any visible fat and remove the skin when you prepare poultry dishes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests choosing the lower fat versions of the following high-fat items:
- sour cream
Although eggs are not technically a dairy product, the CDC also recommends using egg whites or pasteurized egg white products, instead of whole eggs with yolks.
How Much Protein?
How do you determine how much of these heart-healthy proteins to eat? About 10 to 30 percent of your daily calories should generally come from protein. The recommended dietary allowance for grams of protein needed each day is as follows:
- Women (ages 19 to 70+): 46 grams
- Men (ages 19 to 70+): 56 grams
For example, a cup of milk has eight grams of protein; six ounces of salmon has 34 grams of protein; and a cup of dry beans has 16 grams. This is around the amount of protein that an adult male would need for an entire day. Consider your protein needs within the context of an overall healthy eating plan. By doing so, you’ll be putting yourself on track for better heart health.